Artist Interview: Joan Reilly

For the third installment of our series of interviews with black-and-white comics artists from last month’s MoCCA Festival, we have Joan Reilly, an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. She is a member of Deep6 Studio, and co-editor of the upcoming anthology, The Big Feminist BUT.

  • Can we start by having you say something about this upcoming anthology, The Big Feminist BUT?
  • It’s an anthology of comics about the confusing/empowering state of womanhood in the 21st century. The idea for the book was conceived by my co-editor, Shannon O’Leary (who previously edited a comics anthology called “Pet Noir” of stories about true crimes involving animals).

    We are still compiling stories for it, but we have quite a few in the can already, written and drawn by some very talented artists and writers.

    The original title was “I’m Not a Feminist, BUT…” Because women of our age and younger find themselves saying that a lot, as a weird disclaimer, because feminism has a pretty bad connotation with most people. But some of our contributors took issue with that title, because they really do consider themselves feminists, no buts about it.

    Still, I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the word myself–it just feels dated somehow.

  • Would you say that the project is, in some way, an exploration of exactly that kind of discomfort? With words themselves, and how people react to them?
  • Yes: That’s exactly what it’s about. And that makes the range of stories and possible content really endless and interesting.

    It’s funny because I was sitting at my table at MoCCA recently, watching people pick up the little preview mini-comic we were selling, and they would read the title and then put it down again, and I was thinking, “Man–we would probably sell a lot more copies if we took that word “feminist” out of the title.” But then I realized that I was illustrating the need for this type of book and this type of discussion.

  • That seems to illustrate a really interesting tension, between saying what needs to be said and what people are comfortable with hearing (and also, of course, buying).

    To what extent to you see this sort of thinking, be it about politics (in the broader, non-derogatory sense of that word), philosophy, gender identity, et cetera, influencing your work as a whole? I mean the stuff that doesn’t explicitly use words like ‘feminist’?

  • Hmm…I guess having been born into a pretty liberal, intellectual family, and growing up in the SF Bay Area of California, I am hugely influenced by the mindset of constantly challenging conventions of the past, and looking at the cultural trends that are pointing toward the future.

    But I definitely do not think about that consciously when I’m doing my creative work–it is just there, as part of the background, part of the DNA I guess. When I working on a new project, I’m primarily interested in expressing myself honestly, and not adopting some sort of pretense, or relying on someone else’s ideas or styles of communicating.

  • On the topic of the creative process, can you say a bit more about where you “start from”? That is, do you generally have an image in mind, or a situation, or a specific character you want to flesh out? Can you even distill it down to these kind of specifics?
  • I usually start from a moment that is interesting to me–a memory from my own life, or sometimes a story someone else has told me, but something that I think deserves to be told. Then I think about the larger structure of the story, and how to illustrate it.

    And sometimes, several such “moments” or memories will converge in one project, like with the graphic novel I’m working on now.

    It’s a story about a sloth/girl living in Red Hook, Brooklyn and struggling with creative block and depression, and it combines my interest in the neighborhood of Red Hook with my desire to see/read/create a really good, interesting, funny, communicative and helpful graphic novel about what it’s like to be depressed, both for people who have experienced it, and people who haven’t.

  • That sounds very interesting. I look forward to seeing it.
  • Thanks! There will be a 6-page preview of it in the Fall 2010 issue of Cousine Corrinne’s Reminder–a literary magazine based in Brooklyn.
  • I know that you’re a founding member of Deep6 Studio. Could you tell me a bit about what that is?
  • It’s a group of six cartoonists that originally had nothing in common other than being comics professionals who knew Dean Haspiel, and when Dean decided that he was sick of working at home alone all the time, he rounded up a bunch of us who felt the same way, and we started looking for studio space together. We ended up in this great building directly under the subway tracks in Gowanus, Brooklyn. And in the few years we’ve been there, several other rooms have been rented by cartoonists, so that now we have a pretty sizeable community of artists working under one roof.

    This community has fostered a lot of collaboration, and we’ve been able to team up and tackle large projects that would take one individual forever to complete.

    It is a very supportive environment, and it has been a huge help in making me more productive.

  • This is interesting to me, especially given all the talk about the Internet making location more or less obsolete. Do you feel like there’s anything consciously “retro” about this kind of set-up? Also, is this something that you think would be replicable in someplace that isn’t New York?
  • Yeah, it is funny in that way–it sort of goes against the whole “virtual office” concept. We definitely weren’t trying to be retro, but the very process of making comics–sitting down at a table and drawing on a piece of paper–is pretty darn retro, and perhaps it’s the physical immediacy of that process that makes us want to do it in the same room as a bunch of other people who are doing it, too. Suddenly, with all these other people around, drawing, erasing, struggling, cursing, it seems a lot less lonely and weird and a lot more fun.

    Of course, we’re not a bunch of Luddites, either–we are all super-connected to the online life, but this way we get to have real human interaction as well.

    Regarding the question of whether this could happen anywhere besides New York, I would say absolutely! I know of several other studios like ours in various places around the country, and most of them existed before we ever thought of it.

  • I guess I’ll back up with a more general question here, though it has to do with non-Luddism at least. How do you see the digital platforms that are now proliferating changing the comic world? For better or worse, or just different? And how do you think we’ll be reading/viewing comics in, say, ten years from now?
  • I think the digital platforms for comics are a very positive thing. I am really excited about the idea of being able to sell my work via Comixology or iTunes. I never would have believed that this new concept of giving away free online content could work as a business model if I hadn’t seen it work with my own eyes: My studiomates at Deep6 are all involved in an online comics collective called Act-I-Vate, which began as a lowly blog, and has become an online destination, and a publishing entity in its own right. They recently published a good old-fashioned printed book collection, called the Act-I-Vate Primer, which was recommended in the NYTimes Holiday Gift Guide, and got a lot of press in general, and several of the individual artists involved have parlayed their online creations into publishing deals, both digital and traditional.

    I think there will always be comics as physical objects, but there will simultaneously be more and more exciting and innovative ways to read/experience them digitally. I don’t think humans have yet evolved so far as to believe that the physical art object has no beauty or value, but maybe that physical form is evolving to include technology within it, so that covetable “books” of the future will be hybrids of analog and digital beauty.

  • So, one more question, which you can answer or not. I don’t want it to seem like I am trying to pigeon-hole you as a “feminist artist” or anything, so we can nix this if you want, but: Do you have any general comments about women in the comics industry? Surveying the crowd at MoCCA, it definitely looks like the medium has largely transcended the pimple-faced teenage boy stereotype (if that ever really fit; I’m not sure!), and that a large portion of the readership must be female. How does this reflect on the creative side?
  • Speaking from my own experience going to alternative, independent comics shows like SPX, MoCCA and APE for the last decade, there are definitely more female creators showing up to the shows now, and making their presence known. I remember back in 2000 feeling a bit out of place at SPX, because I was part of a very tiny female alt-comix creator niche population, but that is totally ancient history. Obviously, I don’t know the actual numbers, but it seems like the male-to-female ratio is on a much more even keel these days, which is as it should be! We always need more good stories and good art, from any and all points on the gender spectrum.
  • Alright, well that pretty much wraps up what I’ve got. Anything else you’d like to say?
  • Just that I appreciate the invitation to be interviewed–this was fun. Thanks!
  • Our pleasure. Oh, one more last thing: When you look at the Duckrabbit logo, do you see a rabbit first, or a duck?
  • Duck, definitely.

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